Baseball’s Most Colorful Commissioner: Happy Chandler

This article was written by Bill Marshall

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “A Celebration of Louisville Baseball,” the 1997 SABR convention journal.

 

Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler (1898-1991), born in Corydon, Kentucky, was a lifetime baseball fan who often attended Cincinnati Reds games during his first tenure as Governor of Kentucky. In 1945, he was the surprise choice of the owners to succeed the legendary Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as Commissioner of Baseball. As a U.S. Senator, Chandler openly supported baseball during World War II, and his sponsor among the owners, Larry MacPhail, effectively argued that his political influence in Washington would help keep the game in operation.

Professional baseball reached new heights in popularity and prosperity during Chandler’s commissionership (1945-1951) as attendance marks were shattered in both major and minor leagues. Although many owners expected Chandler to be malleable, he proved otherwise. In late 1945 he demanded and received the same powers in office held by his predecessor. Chandler dealt decisively with labor issues and attempted to protect baseball’s image against gambling and other perceived menaces. In 1946, when American Baseball Guild attorney Robert Murphy brought the Pittsburgh Pirates to the brink of a strike, Chandler worked behind the scenes to defuse the situation. Moreover, when the Pasquel family enticed several major league players, including Mickey Owen, Max Lanier, Sal Maglie, and Vern Stephens to Mexico with generous contracts and large bonuses, the commissioner moved to stop the migration by banning the jumpers from the game for five years.

The aborted Pirates strike and the Mexican League incursions had a profound effect on baseball owners. In August 1946 they moved to protect baseball’s reserve clause with a new uniform contract and to placate players with a $5,000 minimum salary, spring training expenses (called Murphy Money), player representation, and a pension plan. With the owners’ blessing, the players elected representatives and established a platform of their own, which also called for a pension plan, a minimum salary, and other benefits. Chandler publicly praised the players’ plan, which he described as “comparatively modest.” Moreover, he indicated that “organized baseball is willing to do all it can to keep its athletes happy.”

The greatest benefit was the pension plan, drafted independently by Marty Marion of the St. Louis Cardinals and Larry MacPhail of the Yankees. Initially funded through World Series and All-Star Game receipts, the plan enjoyed a tenuous existence at best. Twice, in 1946 and again in 1950, Marion, the chief spokesman of the players, pleaded with Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies players to put a portion of their World Series earnings into the plan. Much to the dismay of several owners, the plan’s solvency was assured in 1950 when Commissioner Chandler negotiated long-term multimillion-dollar contracts with the Gillette Razor Company for television and radio sponsoring of the two events.

The most monumental event of the period, the integration of baseball, also occurred during Chandler’s tenure. The action had far-reaching implications which helped blacks and whites accept social and legal changes in America during the following two decades. Branch Rickey, in a carefully orchestrated move, signed former UCLA and Negro League athlete Jackie Robinson to a Montreal contract in 1945. The rationale behind Rickey’s actions are as paradoxical and complicated as those that converted the Puritans into Yankee traders. While his religious and social background prepared him for the move, it was the profit motive that sealed his determination to sign Robinson. Chandler’s election as commissioner provided the opportunity to break the barrier.

Although Chandler was a native of a segregated state and was subject to all of the ingrained prejudices of his region and period, he was quoted in the Pittsburgh Courier, the influential black newspaper, as saying, “If it’s discrimination you are afraid of, you have nothing to fear from me.” Moreover, in 1946 he told reporter Wendell Smith, “I think every boy in America who wants to play professional baseball should have the chance, regardless of race, creed or color. I have always said—and I repeat it now—that Negro players are welcome in baseball.”

Chandler, who watched numerous games at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, knew that blacks could be great athletes. Imbued with a sense of fairness on the athletic field, Chandler, in a meeting between the two men in 1946, agreed to support Branch Rickey’s experiment. During the major league meetings in Los Angeles in December 1946 Chandler praised Robinson in the Pittsburgh Courier when he said that the former Negro League star was “perhaps the best all-around athlete this country has ever produced.”

Though most baseball owners opposed integration, Chandler’s acquiescence stripped away the barrier previously upheld by Judge Landis and gave Rickey a green light. Moreover, Chandler operated behind the scenes during the 1947 season to ensure Robinson’s safety. Without Chandler’s support, baseball integration might have been forestalled for several years. In a 1956 letter to Chandler, Robinson himself recognized the commissioner’s contribution when he wrote, “I will never forget your role in the so- called Rickey experiment.”

Chandler’s most controversial decision was the suspension of Dodger manager Leo Durocher during the entire 1947 season for conduct detrimental to baseball. Trapped in a feud between Rickey and New York Yankees president Larry McPhail, Durocher’s indiscretions (his associations with gamblers, his well-publicized role in the break-up of actress Laraine Day’s marriage, and his anti-MacPhail comments in a ghost-written newspaper column) left him vulnerable to Chandler’s action. The suspension was a key example of the omnipotent power the commissioner exercised over players and other baseball personnel. Had Durocher taken his case to a court of law, baseball’s 1922 antitrust exemption might have been jeopardized. Yet, Chandler simply felt that he was maintaining baseball’s integrity. The commissioner wanted to distance baseball from gambling, and Durocher was not a figure he wanted young people to emulate.

The gregarious Chandler was at his best when he was “on the stump” promoting baseball. While he did not create the conditions necessary for the game’s popularity, the commissioner unquestionably served the game well as a promoter. Research in his trips’ files verifies that he promoted baseball through hundreds of speeches across the country, in small towns as well as large cities.

Nevertheless, Chandler’s folksy style, rich southern twang, toothy smile, and his ability to belt out “My Old Kentucky Home” in a beautiful tenor voice at the slightest urging, caused several eastern writers to consider him too undignified to hold office. Although he was the antithesis of Landis, the Judge cast a long shadow over Chandler’s conduct and decisions. New York and Boston sportswriters, in particular, were unable to reconcile Chandler with the image projected by his predecessor.

In reply he once stated, “I followed a myth, and I’ll tell you following a myth is not easy. I have Judge Landis’ files for reference, but have had no present word from him on what to do in the many difficult situations which abound in my office.”

Baseball’s owners, and not its writers, however, caused Chandler’s  downfall.  In 1950 and again in 1951, Chandler’s attempts to be re-elected as commissioner failed as he lost by a 9-7 vote. New rules, adopted in 1945, which required approval of three-fourths of the owners (12 votes) for Chandler to be rehired, proved to be a formidable stumbling block. There were several reasons why Chandler might fail the owners’ litmus test.

First, he was not the tractable defender of owners’ rights that many had envisioned. Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox reportedly complained to his fellow owners that Chandler is “the players’ commissioner, the fans’ commissioner, the press and radio commissioner—everybody’s commissioner but the men who pay him.”

Second, in the owners’ minds Chandler jeopardized baseball’s structure by not reinstating the Mexican League players when it became clear that the league was no longer a threat. Instead of finding a means of repatriating the jumpers, his hard stance spawned lawsuits and a congressional investigation which challenged the reserve clause.

Third, some owners felt that Chandler played favorites. As sportswriter Red Smith charged, the owners “hired a man trained in the school of pork-barrel patronage and log-rolling politics. Happy’s entire experience was calculated to teach one lesson: reward your friends, blast your opponents.”

Finally, Chandler’s political acumen, applied with great success in Kentucky, failed him in baseball. Instead of cultivating Tom Yawkey, and up-and-coming power brokers like Bob Carpenter and Walter O’Malley, he chose as his allies the grand old men of baseball—Connie Mack, Clark Griffith, and Walter Briggs. These were his heroes. Chandler alienated St. Louis Cardinals’ owner Fred Saigh with his handling of the Gardella case and other issues, and Del Webb of the Yankees when the latter discovered that Chandler was investigating his Las Vegas interests. Webb, who was the most influential owner in the American League, organized the owners’ opposition to Chandler. Chandler’s later claim that his stance on race was the major factor in his demise has little credence. There is no contemporary evidence that any of the owners credited or discredited Chandler because of his role in breaking the color barrier.

Chandler left baseball in a stronger position than he found it. He was at heart a baseball fan, a man who wanted to take the commissioner’s position off a pedestal, to humanize it, and to share himself and the game with its followers. In this he succeeded admirably. Faced with difficult and even critical decisions during one of American history’s most pivotal eras, he let his conscience guide him. Following his ouster, Chandler was almost ignored by his successors and by most other baseball officials. Not until the coming of Bowie Kuhn, a commissioner whose problems closely paralleled Chandler’s, was the second commissioner of baseball even invited to an official baseball function—a hiatus of 17 years. Chandler was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

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